I learned about Barbara Jones-Hogu’s work only recently from a colleague at the Pennsylvania Art Education Conference. I loved it the moment I saw it and I knew my students would, too. At the time, I was teaching a course on graphic design and digital imaging to middle-school students. My students were already familiar with the ways that designers can use color, text, and image to appeal to a specific audience, having studied a variety of advertisements and package designs throughout the trimester. Jones-Hogu’s work prompted us to talk about different kinds of messages that we see around us every day.
Grant H., Being Me Is All I Can Be, grade seven.Jessica H., I Have an Idea, grade eight.Aaron O., See Us, grade eight.Julianne N., Queerness Is Beautiful, grade eight.Izzy R., We Live in a Society, grade eight.
Printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu believed in the power of art to share important messages. As a founding member of the Chicago artists’ collective AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) in 1968, she created work that affirmed black people. Her work and that of the collective was consciously political, a call to positive action. “We were speaking about ideas that we wanted to motivate,” Jones-Hogu said. “Citing things that we think should be addressed and possibly solutions.”
Relate to Your Heritage
To make Relate to Your Heritage, Jones-Hogu used silkscreen, an inexpensive and accessible method commonly used to print designs on t-shirts. Her print has five colors: brick red, bright orange, lime green, dark purple, and black. These acid-bright colors are the “Cool Ade” colors of the Black Arts Movement, named after the sugary mix-at-home beverage. When using the silkscreen technique, each color must be printed separately, and the paper must be lined up to ensure that each color is printed in the right place.
The composition of this print is divided into five vertical sections, the color allowing each to flow into the next. The artist shows us five very different black faces in profile and three-quarter views. The faces, dark purple and black, contrast with the bright text-filled background. Some of the faces are adorned with light, others with markings.
One figure wears necklaces that look like those traditionally worn by the Masai people, and the markings on her face may be inspired by the headdresses also worn by women in that culture. The Egyptian ankh symbol is featured in the form of a headdress on another figure. We should also notice that the figures wear their hair in the natural curly Afro style. The word “Relate” repeats throughout the work. The center panel depicts a woman wearing a headwrap and long-flowing dress, and the text Relate to Our Heritage. “Text was a way to make sure that her message was very direct and very clear,” says Julie Rodrigues Widholm, who curated Jones-Hogu’s first solo show Resist, Relate, Unite in 2018 at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago, which opened shortly after the artist’s death.
Introducing the Artist
I learned about Jones-Hogu’s work only recently from a colleague at the Pennsylvania Art Education Conference. I loved it the moment I saw it and I knew my students would, too. At the time, I was teaching a course on graphic design and digital imaging to middle-school students. My students were already familiar with ways that designers can use color, text, and image to appeal to a specific audience, having studied a variety of advertisements and package designs throughout the trimester. Jones-Hogu’s work prompted us to talk about different kinds of messages that we see around us every day. Advertisements, my students noted, try to make us believe that we will be better if we buy the product.
I told students that we would make posters with empowering messages. We looked at Relate to Your Heritage along with Shepard Fairey’s We the People and Elizabeth Catlett’s Black is Beautiful. Then I asked three questions: What do the three artworks have in common? What is the message of each artwork? How do color and imagery reinforce that message?
Posters that Empower
To prompt students’ work, I asked them, “What is a message that you think is important for people to hear?” To create their posters, students began by taking selfies using the camera on their laptops. Then they imported the photos to Photoshop where I taught them how to use filters, shift colors, and use the warped text tool. I required that their text, image, and color choices all needed to match their message.
While my students used Photoshop, you could easily adapt this lesson to a drawing, photography, or printmaking project. The important part of this lesson is the conversation and sharing messages that are meaningful to our students. I plan to teach about Jones-Hogu’s work again this year as part of my third- and fourth-grade’s modern art unit and give a lesson on lettering. Want to learn more? The Smithsonian Museum of American Art has a wonderful teaching resource about the artist’s work available online.
Art teachers incorporate technology and new media into their lessons. Young students become subjects of historical American artworks through digital projection, elementary students create outer space-themed LED circuit-enhanced drawings, middle-school students research the art of printmaker Barbara Jones-Hogu and design posters with powerful messages, high-school students digitally illustrate food recipe layouts, and more.